Thursday, April 7, 2011

Up-and-Coming Under-22 Japanese Players to Watch

Back in the summer of 2008, I looked over the ranks of top young Japanese female golfers with an eye to predicting who would decide to come to and maybe even make a big splash on the LPGA. Just before spring sprung this year, I profiled Harukyo Nomura, who (along with Ayaka Kaneko and Junko Nakada) followed in the path blazed by Mika Miyazato, choosing to start her professional career in the States on the LPGA and Futures Tour rather than in Japan on the JLPGA. Nomura's win on the Futures Tour this past weekend got me wondering, who else might follow her along the Mikan trail among Japan's current crop of top under-22 golfers and who might take other paths to the LPGA. Here's a preliminary list. Feel free to point me toward anyone I missed.

Mitsuki Katahira: Currently ranked #1 in the R&A's Women's World Amateur Golf Ranking and playing junior college golf at Daytona State, this 21-year-old has won 6 of her 9 7 of her 10 starts this academic year [thanks, John!], was recently featured in Campus Insider, and plans to compete on the Futures Tour after graduating this spring. She's already got a T29 under her belt at the FT's Daytona Beach Invitational--not quite as good as Jennifer Song's win in her FT professional debut, much less Harukyo Nomura's win that week, but let's see what she does when she actually turns pro!

Kaori Ohe, who will turn 21 in May, has full membership on the JLPGA in 2011 after her 4th-place finish in Q-School (which followed upon her victory at 1 of the sites hosting the tour's penultimate stage). Her best finish on the JLPGA is a T4 at last year's rain-shortened Hisako Higuchi IDC Otsuka Kagu Ladies, but she missed the cut in the 1st and only JLPGA event of 2011. Still, she's currently at #202 on the Rolex Rankings and #264 on the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, so I'd put her on the verge of breaking through.

Miki Sakai: She had a decorated amateur career, finishing T5 among girls age 15-17 in the 2008 Callaway World Junior Golf Championships and winning the 2010 Japan Women's Amateur. In beating Mai Arai, Mamiko Higa, Serena Aoki, Kaori Toki (who herself had defeated Miho Mori to get into the quarterfinals), and Asuka Kashiwabara in match play in the latter, she put her name alongside such recent JWA winners as Ai Miyazato, Mika Miyazato, Shinobu Moromizato, Ayako Uehara, Asako Fujimoto, Sakurako Mori, and Hiroko Ayada. Following her 44th-place finish at the final stage of JLPGA Q-School, she only has partial status on the JLPGA in '11, but she did finish T12 at the LAGT's Yumeya Championship that Sakura Yokomine won. Although she's only at #363 in the Rolex Rankings, the GSPI would place her in the world's top 50 if she had played enough events on tours they keep track of in their system. She's got a lot of upside--and she doesn't even turn 20 until late May.

Miho Mori finished T3 in the 2008 Callaway World Junior Golf Championships in the Girls 15-17 division and won the 2008 and 2009 Japan Junior Golf Championship in the same age group. In JLPGA events she got into, she was the low amateur at the '08 Bridgestone Ladies Open and the '08 and '09 Hisako Higuchi IDC Otsuka Kagu Ladies. She followed up that impressive record last year with a disappointing T27 in the Girls 15-17 division in Japan's Juniors, but made it to the round of 16 in the Japan Women's Amateur and returned to the Japan Women's National Team (which she had also been a member of in '08). At #395 in the Rolex Rankings and just 18 years old, she has a bright future ahead of her.

Mamiko Higa won the 2010 Japan Junior Golf Championship in the Girls 15-17 division, finishing ahead of Harukyo Nomura, Serena Aoki, and Miho Mori. The year before, she beat Miki Sakai in the 1st round of the Japan Women's Amateur to make it into the Sweet 16, but lost in the next round to Hiroko Ayada, who went on to finish in 3rd place. Her record on the JLPGA is fairly impressive, as well, garnering low amateur honors at the '10 T Points Ladies Open, the '09 Meiji Chocolate Cup, and the '09 Daikin Orchid. A member of the Women's National Team last year and this one, she's already at #480 in the Rolex Rankings, but won't even turn 18 until October.

Serena Aoki turned 18 in February and has had almost as impressive an amateur record as those above her on this list, She got a T10 at the '08 Callaway Junior Girls 15-17, won the '08 Japan Women's Amateur Public Golf Championship, finished 2nd in the '08 Japan Junior Girls 15-17, 2nd in the '10 Japan Women's Amateur Public Golf Championship, T6 in the '10 Japan Junior Girls 15-17, and lost to Miki Sakai in the quarterfinals of the '10 Japan Women's Amateur. On the JLPGA last year, she was the low amateur at the Golf5 Ladies, which helped bring her Rolex Ranking to #352 and in the GSPI's top 150 (if, that is, she had enough events under her belt).

Erika Kuwahara: She turns 22 in August, so she just made it onto this list. With peak performances in Japan a visit to the quarterfinals of the JWA in '07 and the Sweet 16 in '08, her record at home isn't quite as impressive as the others on this list, but she was a member of the National Women's Team in 2008. It's looking like she's aiming to follow in Yuki Sakurai's footsteps by breaking through via the LET. (Here's hoping she has better success, as Sakurai retreated to the JLPGA and has only partial status this season.) Kuwahara finished T2 in LET Q-School's Pre-Qualifying Tournament early last December, but played terribly in their Final Qualifying Tournament, finishing T68. Undaunted, she's been playing on the SunCoast Series in Florida, where she's currently stuck at 31st on their money list, but despite that unimpressive start she made it into a playoff in last month's Florida Women's Open after going 70-67-74. Even though she ended up losing to Izzy Beisiegel in it, she beat such LPGA and Futures Tour regulars as Paige Mackenzie, Danielle Downey, Danah Bordner, Moira Dunn, Cindy LaCrosse, Meredith Duncan, Kim Welch, Anna Grzebien, Briana Vega, Dori Carter, Shasta Averyhardt, Allison Fouch, Kris Tamulis, and Nannette Hill. She's entered in La Nivelle Ladies Open next week on a European mini-tour I've never heard of before researching this post, the Generali Ladies Tour, which looks like a haven for up-and-comers and down-on-their-luckers from the LET and is a big part of the LET Access Series. Let's see how she does!

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